There is a seemingly endless supply of think pieces and long reads about why Donald Trump is now our President. Most focus on the belief that Trump tapped into a vein of anger among white working class voters in the midwest and rust belt over … pick your poison … electing the first black president, veiled racism, economic insecurity, the opioid crisis and on and on.
I am not a smart reporter or a political scientist, I cannot disaggregate voter turnout models or speak to the impact voter ID laws had on turn out, if Comey’s letter torpedoed Hillary (though I suspect it helped) or what impact Wikileaks or Facebook had when cable news was handing Trump in-kind contributions in the billions by simply airing his every move, but one thing that you never hear about is the impact third-party voting had on the 2016 election.
Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. To me, this is the most underreported story of 2016. Both Stein and Johnson were candidates in 2012 AND 2016, which makes their vote totals particularly interesting to look at. In 2012, Johnson got .99% of the national vote and Stein got .36%, for a combined total of 1.35%. In 2016, Johnson got 3.28% of the vote and Stein got 1.07%. Johnson tripled his vote total and Stein nearly tripled hers. Combined, they received more than 4% of the vote.
One would assume Johnson’s vote spiked from Republicans who refused to vote for Trump but could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary and Stein’s vote spiked for the opposite reason. I have not seen any studies done on who Johnson and Stein voters considered as a second option, but I have to wonder whether the media’s fixation on Hillary as untrustworthy caused voters who could not stomach Trump to go for Johnson (or Evan McMullen, who got about .4% of the vote) instead. The large third-party vote had enormous consequences in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, each of which Trump won by less than 1%. In all three states, Trump’s margin of victory was far less than the Johnson and Stein vote combined. In fact, it was less than the Stein vote alone, a vague redux of New Hampshire and Florida in 2000, where Bush’s margin was less than Nader’s vote total.
Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Although much attention is rightly focused on Hillary’s loss of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which had gone for the Democrats in every election since 1992, if I was a Democrat running in 2020, I would be even more concerned with Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Trump carried Florida by 1.3 percent (the Johnson/Stein vote accounted for about 3 percent), Ohio by 8 percent, and Iowa by 10 percent. In Florida, while Clinton grew Obama’s vote total by about 260,000, Trump added more than 450,000 votes from what Romney got in 2012. Iowa is even more telling. Clinton underperformed Obama by almost 170,000 votes while Trump added just 70,000 votes from Romney. But, whereas third party candidates only got about 30,000 votes in 2012, they spiked to nearly 80,000 in 2016. Finally, in Ohio, Obama outperformed Hillary by more than 400,000 votes while Trump only added about 180,000 votes to Romney’s total. Again, the third party vote was huge compared to 2012. In 2016, Johnson and Stein got a combined 4 percent of the vote, but in 2012, they only got 1.2 percent.
Of course, had Hillary won Florida and any one of Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, she would be President today (this discounts the “faithless electors” who refused to vote for their state’s winner in the actual 2016 election, resulting in an official tally of 304-227, instead of 306-232).
Trump’s Win Was Underwhelming. Not only did Trump lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million, but his percentage of the overall vote was barely 46 percent, the lowest total for a Presidential victor since 1992 when Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the vote with a well-funded third-party candidate (Ross Perot) in the race. In fact, Hillary basically matched Obama’s vote total from 2012 (she came up about 65,000 votes short of Obama) but the disbursement of those votes was different. She over performed Obama in states that may be trending purple like Arizona (+140,000) and Georgia (+105,000) and deep blue states like California (+1,000,000) but in addition to the states mentioned above, received fewer votes than Obama did in reliable Democratic strongholds like Minnesota (-180,000) and Connecticut (-7,000). In Minnesota, the third-party vote went from 1.64% to 5.1% and in Connecticut from .87% to 4.35% while Trump’s vote was basically flat from 2012.
2020. Trump threaded a very small needle to scratch out an electoral victory that was the result of many things, one of which - the third-party vote - is rarely spoken about among the political chattering class but should be discussed more because I cannot believe anything Trump has done as President would get “never Trump” Republicans (or Independents) who did not vote for him (or Hillary) to change their minds while Stein voters who may have felt “safe” lodging a protest vote assuming Hillary was going to win have (hopefully?) learned their lesson.
If you believe that the massive spike in third-party voting was attributable to voters thinking both candidates were equally flawed (a narrative driven in large part by a media elite who refuse to take any responsibility for their false equivalence), there is a major opportunity for a Democrat who does not engender the antipathy of the media and some voters to shift many of those third-party votes that would swamp Trump by an even greater raw vote total margin but with the added benefit of a convincing electoral college victory as well.
While protest voters may have believed the polls and pundits that Hillary had things in the bag and therefore felt freer to cast a third party vote, the same will not be true in 2020. Indeed, there is good historical precedent - Ralph Nader’s share of the vote dropped from 2.74% in 2000 to .38% in 2004. While that did not result in a Kerry victory, it did not contribute to his defeat.
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